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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

How Can Japan Solve its Birthrate Problem?

Cute baby

Japan is shrinking. Although dutiful Japan Rail employees may still cram passengers into rush-hour trains from time to time, it’s all an illusion. From a population high of 128 million souls in 2008, Japan has already lost 5 million of that number. If current trends continue, the nation is slated to have closer to 70 million residents by 2060. And with year-on-year declines and just 800,000 babies born last year (compared with a baby-boom high of 2.7 million infants in 1949), the numbers look bleak.


Granted, Japan isn’t alone in this. According to 2022 numbers published by the United Nations Population Fund, Japan’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR), the statistic of how many babies the average woman is likely to have over her lifetime, is 1.4. That puts Japan at number 178 out of 193 countries and regions tracked by the UN. Things are worse in Spain, Ukraine, Hong Kong (all three at 1.4), Italy (1.3), and even the US territory of Puerto Rico (1.2). South Korea is at the bottom of the list with a rate of just 1.1. Meanwhile, Niger tops the list with 6.6 infants per mother per lifetime.


Some nations offset such low numbers with immigration. The United States has a rate of 1.8, lower than the 2.1 rate needed to maintain a steady population. But immigration keeps it growing. Japan is not known for its open immigration policy. Think of a barn with the door just about closed and you will have a somewhat accurate picture of how many people are moving here. Even when foreigners do opt to stay, they generally have children at local rates.


In his 2023 policy speech, Prime Minister Kishida lamented the dire situation, worrying aloud if it will “be possible to maintain social functions” over the long-term. He proposed a “child-first economic policy” with increased financial assistance for young families, including college tuition support. Yet the projects he mentioned are mostly expanded versions of programs currently doing little to move the birthrate needle.


The Prime Minister also mentioned a new Cabinet-level Children and Family Affairs Agency (こども家庭庁), coming online in April. He promoted its goals by saying, “We will examine policies that will correct the birthrate issue, focusing especially on relationships with social insurance programs, national and local governments, and support for higher education. The goal is to allow families to raise children with peace of mind. At the same time, this will reduce the pressure on individual youth by spreading the burden of social welfare support across a wider pool of workers.” In other words, we will throw more money at the problem and hope it works.


I’m not trying to be critical. The birthrate issue is obviously difficult, and many countries are debating possible solutions. But there is one Western-aligned developed nation that has turned its numbers around, so much so that pundits are worrying about regional overpopulation. And it did so primarily by looking not just to politicians, but to its entire population for solutions. That country is Israel.


Like all other economically advanced nations—its per capita GDP is nearly identical to Japan’s—Israel saw its birthrate fall consistently after World War II, from a rate of around 4.5 in the 1950s to around 3.0 just two generations later. Israel has a subpopulation of Orthodox Jews whose extremely high fertility rate lifts the numbers a bit. But the long-term expectation included significant population declines.


And then, near the start of the 1990s, things changed. The fertility rate jumped up, not just amongst the Orthodox set, but across all strata: rich and poor, immigrant and established, educated and otherwise. Even secular, affluent women in metropolitan areas were having kids at above the replacement rate. As a nation, Israel’s TFR stands at 3.1, far above the 1.7 average for other developed nations.


A Christian Science Monitor examination of Israel’s birthrate from a few years ago identified several likely reasons for the reversal. While financial support to young families certainly played a role, several researchers quoted in the article pointed to “a unique combination of societal messages and policies” as the key to Israel’s success. Success factors included:


  • A “lingering post-Holocaust imperative” to survive as a nation and tribe.

  • A worldview that places value on the family (especially those with more than two children), even when additional children would lead to a loss of personal freedom and more financial hardship for parents.

  • A “war society” awareness stemming from decades-long Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

  • Government pro-natalist policies, including support for 14 weeks of maternity leave after childbirth and unlimited national insurance coverage for fertility treatments.


In short, Israel attacked its looming birthrate problem by fomenting a sense of national urgency, placing a pro-family worldview at the heart of its society, and enacting governmental policies that meshed well with these foundations. Some of these factors may be unique to Israel’s environment, but Japan can still learn much about growing its population by looking to this small Middle East nation.


The Kishida administration is already trying to craft economic policies that will encourage young families to have children, and politicians will need to decide if things like government sponsorship of in-vitro fertilization are right for Japan. But these financial changes won’t do a thing if the broader society isn’t focused intently on getting families to have more than two children. How can that happen?


One option is to put positive family examples in plain view. Historical dramas and manga-based high school romance TV shows are certainly entertaining, but it might be time to replace them with entertainments that portray families in a positive light, especially larger families where the parents married while still in their twenties. It might also be time to seek alternatives to AKB48-style fads and their portrayals of idealized responsibility-free eternal youth.


The postwar trend has been for twentysomethings to leave their prefectural homes and head to Kantō, looking for financial success and the glitz of the big city. The result has been a depopulation of rural communities and the splitting of familial bonds in a nation that used to maintain multigenerational households. The government has tried to get companies to look beyond Tokyo, and it is now time to boost these programs into overdrive. Not only will this revitalize neglected parts of the country and bring more families together, it will also reduce the financial burden on young parents who won’t need to pay for the high cost of life in the metropolis’s inner wards.


Perhaps the biggest opportunity Japan has is to alter its workplace environment into one that puts an emphasis on family. An NHK news story from earlier this week highlighted one company that was able to double the effective birthrate of its employee base (and presumably spouses) by instituting a pro-family mindset. The business discouraged needless overtime, implemented a morning-centric work structure, and brought other changes that promoted a healthier work-life balance. Not only did employees have more kids, but the business also enjoyed increased productivity from its now-happier staff.


These are just a few suggestions that I throw out at random. Politicians may opt for a different set of initiatives. But regardless of the policies they adopt, none of it will matter unless the broader population adopts a family-first attitude and does so with a national sense of urgency.


[Image Credits: Satoshinpi / photo-ac.com]

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